Sunday, June 16, 2013

What Don Quixote Taught Me (so far)

Don Quixote by Salvador Dalí
A little over a year ago I was coming back from Spain with some images on a thumb drive and a notebook full of scribbles.  My full-scale research on Don Quixote had just started.  My mission was to research and write a doctoral dissertation in about a year, a pretty ambitious (maybe even quixotic) undertaking.  One thing you are expected to do in a dissertation is to demonstrate knowledge of the field and with the Quixote, that’s over 400 years of existing scholarship written mostly in English and Spanish.  Then there was the task of coming up with something new, some addition to the knowledge about the subject and express those findings in a well-researched and cited +/- 300 page paper.  

There were times when I felt like I was not going to get it done, which would put me in the large percentage of Ph.D. candidates who take all the classes and pass their exams to go on to the dissertation phase . . . and . . . never . . . finish.  There were doldrums where I struggled to write much of anything.  But I was propelled forward by several things, some negative, some positive.  One big motivator was the knowledge that a few people in my department never thought I belonged in the Ph.D. program, some of them because they thought I was some kind of incurious knuckle-dragger due to my previous career in the military.  A very important person in our College of Liberal Arts once told me he didn't think the G.I. bill was meant to be used to pursue graduate studies.  I suppose he thought I should be using my military benefits to learn welding or automotive repair (I discovered my lack of talent for welding in Mr. Vidrine’s Vocational Agriculture class in 1979 in high school). 

But to investigate a field you are really interested in is a real privilege and I was also mindful through the process that I was being given a great opportunity.  Many people would love to pursue a Ph.D. but would never have the chance because it costs so much and takes so much time.  My opportunity was funded by my military service but also by the fact that a sizeable number of people valued my service and were willing to fund my studies through the G.I. bill.  So it was never just me pushing to the finish line to get the dissertation done.

The task I took up was to figure out how the 17th century Spanish literary character grew into a nearly universally recognizable popular icon today.  Answering that question taps into a little bit about what fiction, images and symbols mean to us, as well as how we use narrative as humans.  A few books out there track how Don Quixote broke out of his literary beginnings in the original novel and showed up in translations, illustrations, tapestries, films and  theater over 400 years.  But almost none of them bundle all of those genres together and none of them attempt to explain why; what it is about the character Don Quixote that makes us attracted to him and gives him long life. The conclusion of my dissertation is attached below if you're a real trooper and have a few minutes.
At the beginning of this study we saw that the Quixote initially gained bestseller status because it rode a wave of Spanish literary production and brilliantly satirized a well-known literary genre.  The Quixote was image based, developing its own proto-iconography by exploiting the existing religious iconography and combining it with the imagery of medieval carnival.  As Spolsky points out, we seem to gravitate as human beings to images due to the phenomenon of representational hunger, filling needs with the representations provided by narrative and its concomitant set of images (Iconotropism 16).  With the advent of film just before the turn of the twentieth century, the Quixote was the subject of some of the very first films ever made, proving to be exceptionally useful by providing a visually impactful protagonist whose episodic adventures worked well in the new multi-track media.  The protagonist´s paradoxical flexibility came into play in film, providing a mouthpiece and model for Socialist and Communist ideology as well as supporting a fascist Franco regime, while later coming to exemplify North American post-modern individuality in the 20th century.  Translators and adapters seemed to respond to some basic drive to universalize the Quixote, providing translations in nearly every written language and adaptations for every age.  In order to serve national agendas, some translators have used a variety of techniques and word choices to emphasize the insanity or oddness of the Manchegan knight.  Later translators sought to recover the dignified and heroic side of Don Quixote, preserving his Spanish character while making him understandable for the target audience.  The writers of children´s adaptations in Spain have appropriated the work and the protagonist as a paragon of national character while those outside of Spain have tended to mine his playful, adventurous side for stories which would appeal to young readers.  The image of Don Quixote has been enhanced, embellished and propagated by illustrators who have used technological advances and their own artistic vision to highlight either the comic or serious side of the protagonist.  That iconography, as well as the other manifestations of the protagonist, has allowed Don Quixote to gain his own momentum separate from the text and be appropriated for political purposes to either lampoon one´s opponents or to be the guiding model for one´s own movement.  Proof of his iconic status is that he is used to introduce and sell products and has become the backbone of an entire segment of the tourism industry in Spain.  His name and story are invoked by both oppressive governments and revolutionary movements and his iconic figure is so strong that echoes of his discourses are still heard in the modern military ethic. 
 As the Quixote was about the intrusion of fiction into the life of its main character, this study seems to point to what may be a basic human tendency to bundle fiction and reality to produce our own narrative, our own “truth” for our own purposes and conveniences.  The examples of movie directors like Rafael Gil and Miguel Gutiérrez Aragón remind us that we sometimes like to have it both ways: to construct our own truth and claim that it is not a construction, but faithful to the original text, an even more powerful platform for our own personal agendas.  But we should not be too hard on ourselves, as this mixing of the fictional and real is our birthright as modern humans who have been taught by literature and language to “imagine counterfactual and qualitatively new contexts (new in the sense of different from that which is already and merely present) suggest[ing] the possibility of attempting to realize them, and therefore also purposive action” (Berman 45,46).  Our ability to see beyond the present, quotidian, and tangible to imagine the hypothetical, the notional, and possible and take steps to achieve them is what makes us human, even quixotic.  
                Part of the flexibility of Don Quixote´s character derives from the fact that “Cervantes refuses to explicitly prescribe how his work is to be read” providing what he calls an “‘open ideological canvas’ for its readers” (Bayliss 389).  Indeed, Cervantes writes in the Part I Prologue, “you have your own soul in your own body, and your own free will like anybody else, and you are sitting in your own home, where you are the lord and master just as much as the king is of his taxes. . .”  But beyond the freedom the author give to us the reader to interpret and engage Don Quixote, the greater availability of the protagonist to us rests on his built-in paradox and ambivalence as a comic hero, enabling one reader to focus on his insanity and another to hone in on his wisdom, according to the reader´s individual needs.  Ellen Spolsky has drawn a parallel between the intake of food and narrative (Narrative as Nourishment 42).  Like many other narratives, we consume Don Quixote individually, perhaps uniquely, casting aside the characteristics, episodes and discourses we don´t like and digesting what we find convenient.        
                Don Quixote´s paradox has resulted in two primary readings: the hard interpretation espoused by Anthony Close and Peter E. Russell which maintains that Cervantes´ novel should be read as a satire that aims to discredit a literary genre, and the soft reading consistent with that of the 19th century romantics who saw the knight as a heroic idealist and noble visionary.  Similarly, the title of John Jay Allen´s Don Quixote: Hero or Fool suggests that he must be one or the other (Bayliss 391).  But to say that the reader must choose between the burlesque and the heroic in Don Quixote discounts the knight´s paradoxical nature.  He is simultaneously cuerdo and loco, hidalgo and caballero, and that paradox is what makes him so accessible and useful as an icon.  Like Subcomandante Marcos, who first read the Quixote at twelve years of age and later, as a revolutionary, carried it as a primer on political theory, the reader can enter the Quixote through the door of burlesque entertainment and make himself at home in the poignant and profound.     
Don Quixote´s progress toward gaining iconic stature has not just been a linear, cumulative or additive process, but a geometric, multiplicative and viral one, since the next appropriator will have not only the original textual Don Quixote to choose from, but all of the subsequent appropriations from 1605 until now.  The icon has picked up speed and momentum, riding every single wave of new media, being propelled forward by translation, illustration, theater, film and product, but also enriching and contributing to each genre. 
A great deal of our attraction to Don Quixote has to do with his representation of the struggle to establish an individual identity,[1] but other less viral literary figures: Faust, Don Juan, and Robinson Crusoe have also carried an individualist message.[2]  Certainly, the fact that Don Quixote is recognizable, especially if paired with Sancho, has helped him gain iconic status, but if being recognizable were the overriding criteria for being an icon, this study might be about Bottarga and Ganassa or Don Carnal and Doña Cuaresma.  
Paradoxically, he is us and he is not us. In his manifestation as Alonso Quijano he is a common man, an unremarkable, unaccomplished man from nowhere special.  As Don Quixote, though, he highlights our own belief and idealism, our own limitations and possibilities.  Don Quixote, the medieval knight armed to the teeth, was bizarre in the late 16th century Spain in which he was cast and he remains bizarre today.  As Russell Berman points out, the epic genre emphasizes not what the heroes did, but the fact that they are long dead and not replaced (Fiction Sets You Free 115), and in a similar way, we become aware of our unbelief by viewing Don Quixote´s unshakeable belief in everything he has read.  Don Quixote is cited by Robert Alter as beginning the “erosion of belief in the authority of the written word” (qtd. in Parr 21), not the least of which was the loss of faith in the authority of scripture.  Georg Lukács reinforces that idea about the Quixote, writing, “The first great novel of world literature stands at the beginning of the time when the Christian God began to forsake the world” (103).  Nonetheless, the knight´s innocent belief in his ability to achieve great things and embark on adventures chosen for him alone invokes and partially mirrors the repeated biblical narrative of the meagerly talented or even handicapped individuals who achieved great things through divine inspiration (Moses, Joseph, Samuel, David, Gideon, Mary, Jesus´ disciples, etc.).  Don Quixote´s self-efficacy and ability to create identity through belief may be enormously attractive to the modern person conditioned by rationalism to mistrust the metaphysical and whose aspirations are hemmed in by the limitations of gender, race, social class, sexual orientation, education and an economic system that commodifies basic human existence.  So, between the hard and soft readings of the Quixote, it is the soft reading that causes us to sense, like José Cadalso in 1789, that this is much more than just a funny book.  It is that heroic reading that connects us personally to the knight and elevates him to the status of an icon.  The knight´s unwavering commitment to impossibly high ideals, celebrated by the song “Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha, is what we admire and would like to replicate in our own lives.  That affirmation of transcendent idealism, the desire to be greater than what one would normally be allowed, to follow ideals and strive for the impossible dream, is what makes him special to all of us.     
Alonso Quijano had to become someone else to find out who he was.  At fifty years of age he had to be born again as Don Quixote to truly live and die.  He journeyed to the limits of his country to get back home.  His impossible ideals resulted in many beatings and many defeats, but they were necessary for him to become the “vencedor de sí mismo,” the conqueror of himself.  He challenges us to do the same: to aspire, to journey, and to conquer ourselves.   

[1] Alexander Welsh writes extensively on Don Quixote as a treatise on individualism in Reflections on the Hero as Quixote. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1981. pp. 167-222.

[2] Ian Watt´s book takes on the subject of Don Quixote´s individualist myth in Myths of Modern Individualism. Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Robinson Crusoe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. pp. 48-89.